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Student Questions: Guidestones and Tachyons

Donate Skeptoid answers another round of questions sent in by friendly folks all over the world.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Feedback & Questions

Skeptoid Podcast #867
January 17, 2023
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Student Questions: Guidestones and Tachyons

Welcome to another Student Questions episode, in which people send in their questions from all over the world, and I do my best to give them all a miniature Skeptoid treatment. You might notice today that not all of our questions come from students — in fact, in what might be a first, I don't think any of them are from students — but that's OK. For a long time these episodes have been open to anyone: students of life, students of the school of hard knocks, whoever. Regardless, they're always fun.

Without further ado, let's dive right into our first question:

Theory vs. Hypothesis

Hi Brian, I'm Diane from Oregon, retired science teacher and lifelong student. I'm curious as to why you use the terms theory and hypothesis interchangeably. I know that in common usage, theory means a working explanation for which more evidence is needed, but that's not what it means in science, and I think this leads to confusion that contributes to scientific illiteracy. As in, 'Evolution is just a theory'. Thanks.

Thanks for pointing out the important distinction, however I must beg to differ: I most certainly do not use them interchangeably, and a number of episodes have discussed the difference between them. A hypothesis is a proposed explanation that needs to be tested to establish validity; while a theory is a widely accepted explanation supported by solid evidence.

What you've probably heard is me discussing crackpot ideas that their creators have named, such as the Stoned Ape Theory, the Electric Universe Theory, or the Flat Earth Theory, names which have come into common usage and which include the word theory. I use the recognized name so people know what I'm talking about. As I explained in one such recent episode, on Polyvagal Theory:

It's worth noting, of course, that PVT does not satisfy the requirements to be elevated to the status of a theory, which requires support from multiple lines of evidence, substantial experimental replication, and testable predictions. It is a hypothesis at best, but not so much even that, as it is not really a suggestion to explain an observation. It's best described as a conjecture. But since "polyvagal theory" is its common name, I call it that in recognition of the fact that if I didn't, nobody would know what I was referring to and I'd sound like a maniac.

FDA Approval

Next, we have a question from Brandon:

Hello Brian! In this week's episode, when you were speaking about magnetic therapy, you mentioned that the FDA only speaks about a product's safety, not necessarily its efficacy. I was wondering if you could spend some time talking about what the FDA actually does, and give us some more clarification on what they do, rather than just live with myths. Thank you buddy, have a great week.

Great question, but a thorough discussion of that could never be squeezed into a Skeptoid episode. This is mainly because there are so many different things that the FDA approves and doesn't approve, and their approval means something just a little bit different for each. There are drugs, but excluding some types; biological products; some kinds of medical devices but not others; they regulate some things like human cells and tissue but don't approve them; food additives; color additives but only in regulated products; and lots of things that they explicitly don't regulate or approve. Really the best thing for anyone who wants to learn more would be to visit the FDA website, and there's a page called Is It Really FDA Approved? that's a great starting point. Sorry to do that to you.

The Georgia Guidestones, Again

Patrick wrote in with this:

Hi Brian, I'll keep this short. What happened to the Georgia Guidestones, and what was in the time capsule buried underneath them?

So if you don't know about the Georgia Guidestones, they were a granite monument built anonymously in rural Georgia, covered in multilingual inscriptions advocating policies like limiting world population to 500 million, eugenics, a single global language, peace, reason, environmentalism, kind of a hodgepodge of philosophies. Skeptoid episode #198 was all about them, if you want the complete story.

In July 2022, the Guidestones were partially destroyed by an explosion, and the teetering remains were then demolished by officials for safety. As of this writing, the crime remains unsolved, but it's not hard to guess: the Guidestones had been constantly vandalized, often with slogans written by local Evangelicals accusing them of being Satanic.

Two weeks before that happened, I did a Skeptoid followups episode revealing that their creator had finally been identified. You can check out Skeptoid #837 for the details, but it was a local doctor, a Christian Nationalist and avowed white supremacist (he actually used the pseudonym "Christian" when he had the Guidestones built). Imagine how the dynamite-wielding vandals would feel if they knew they'd just blown up the creation of one of their own.

As for the time capsule, there wasn't one. A partially completed granite plaque at the site promised one buried six feet beneath it, but when the contractors demolished the remains they dug for it and found nothing. Engineers stated that the red clay soil had not previously been dug up.

EctoLife

Hello Brian, this is Jack in Friday Harbor. Here's my question for you. I read today that there's a company called EctoLife that is promoting the possibility of birthing thirty thousand babies a year artificially in a factory setting. It seems to me this would be worth a little Skeptoid investigation. Thanks, love your work.

I hate to break it to you, Jack, but it's pure fiction. Filmmaker Hashem Al-Ghaili created an 8-minute computer graphics film short that's like a marketing video for the fictional EctoLife company that he made up. Apparently enough people were fooled by it and thought it was real that they started sharing it around, and well, here we are.

Tachyons Faster than Light?

Harold writes:

My physics teacher said that nothing travels faster than the speed of light in a vacuum. But I've heard there are particles that travel faster than the speed of light called tachyons. Do they exist?

So this is a really weird question, in that a discussion is probably only meaningful to particle physicists. For the average Joe on the street who wonders if there are particles that travel faster than light, the answer is no — tachyons are hypothetical. But to physicists working equations, tachyons are useful in a way not too different from how the imaginary number i — the square root of -1 — is useful to mathematicians.

An in-depth discussion is beyond the scope of this podcast, which is my easy out for saying it's way over my head. But you can get started by thinking of it like this. If we add energy to a particle with mass, it would speed up. But if we have a tachyon with imaginary mass, we'd have to take energy away from it to speed it up. But don't worry; the idea of tachyons doesn't mean there are actually things whizzing around faster than the speed of light. Special Relativity remains intact.

Doctors Selling Woo

Hey Brian, Eric from Wisconsin. I was just wondering how you handle experts that sometimes recommend non-expert things. For example, a physician suggesting doing acupuncture for pain. Thanks!

You've got this in virtually every field. Medicine is particularly problematic. Doctors are human and are only incrementally less likely than the average person to believe in some alternative therapy, and to be happy to sell it. And, to the extent they're not violating medical ethics, they have every legal right to do so.

That leaves the onus on you, the consumer. You can give them a bad review online, but that doesn't make much difference — the next customer who loves the alternative therapy will leave a positive one to counteract it. Really, this is just one more argument in favor of having a good general science literacy. You can't protect everyone, but you can protect yourself and your family.

Debunking the Flat Earth

Here's a question from Robert:

Hi Mr. Dunning. I've been reading a lot about the Earth being flat. How do you know that the Earth isn't flat like one of those ancient compact disk things, or it's round like a basketball. Thanks.

It's a fun question, but quite honestly, even the most sciencey among us don't always necessarily have the best rebuttals at the tip of our tongues. Here are a few quick ones that are irrefutable.

  • Constellations in the night sky differ based on your location, in such a way that is consistent only with the Earth being a sphere.

  • Gravity keeps you standing upright. If Earth were a disk, when you're out near the edge you'd be standing at a sharp angle, since gravity pulls toward the center of mass.

  • You can see farther from higher up. If you look at the horizon through binoculars, you will see a very different sight from the top of a tall building than you would from down lower.

  • During a lunar eclipse, whenever the shadow of the Earth falls across the Moon, you can clearly see that it's round — even when the Moon is down low near the horizon.

That's enough for now — if you still can't convince them with that, my advice is to save your breath.

Paranormal Tourism

Hi Brian, this is Susan Gerbic from the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project, and as a student of the world, my student question for you is, I'd like your thoughts on paranormal tourism. I recently wrote the Gulf Breeze UFO Wikipedia page and was surprised to learn that Gulf Breeze, FL gained by increasing tourism dollars as several UFO conferences were held there, and TV shows like Inside Edition and others exposed the public to the area. Places like the Winchester Mystery House and much less well-known buildings rely on the paranormal aspect to bring in much-needed funds to keep the buildings maintained. I find the history of these places interesting, but don't think enough people do, so they sometimes go the paranormal route. Your wisdom is appreciated.

So this is a difficult question. Every week when I do a Skeptoid episode about some paranormal thing, for example the Cottingley Fairies, I'm well aware that most of the people who look for it using a search engine are more than likely going to be believers in it. So I might well tweak the episode title toward clickbait to increase this traffic. But once they get to my page, it's very clear that this is a fact-based exploration of the phenomenon. This is a bait-and-switch situation that's going to exist regardless of how I title the episode, so I use that to the best advantage to spread the message of critical thinking as far and wide as possible, because that's what Skeptoid is here to do.

Now I'd like to say that the same logic could be applied when you attract tourists by leveraging a ghost story, but then you could hit them with a science message instead when they arrive. But no, you can't do that, because you're deceiving them into spending money to travel, then giving them something other than what you promised them. That's not cool.

People are always going to be interested in paranormal travel. And anyone who sells it to them should give them what they paid for, in my opinion, just as a basic honest business practice. My hope is that in the gift store at the end of the ghost tour, you've got the skeptical books front and center. An honest operator will give them the entertainment they were promised, and then make sure that the honest account of the attraction is available for any who are open to it.

If I owned the attraction, I'd sell the honest version to begin with; because I've learned from 16 years of Skeptoid that the truth is always more interesting than the fiction. It just takes more work to sell that effectively. But doing that work is why I go to bed at night with a clear conscience.

And thus concludes another Student Questions episode. If you've got a question about anything, it's really easy to send it — just come to Skeptoid.com and find "Student Questions" in the navigation menus. Easiest is to record it using the Voice Memo function on your smartphone then email it to me at brian@skeptoid.com, but you can also record it any other way that you prefer. Anyway we'll look forward to those questions for next time. Thanks to everyone who sent one in, and remember to always be skeptical.


By Brian Dunning

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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Student Questions: Guidestones and Tachyons." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 17 Jan 2023. Web. 11 Dec 2023. <https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4867>

 

References & Further Reading

FDA. "Is It Really 'FDA Approved'?" US Food & Drug Administration. US Department of Health and Human Services, 6 May 2019. Web. 3 Jan. 2023. <https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/it-really-fda-approved>

FOX 5 Atlanta Digital Team. "Alleged time capsule beneath Georgia Guidestones a bust after bombing forces demolition." FOX 5. FOX Television Stations, 8 Jul. 2022. Web. 9 Jan. 2023. <https://www.fox5atlanta.com/news/time-capsule-beneath-georgia-guidestones-bust-after-bombing-forces-demolition>

Lea, R. "Tachyons: Facts about these faster-than-light particles." Space.com. Future US, Inc., 24 Nov. 2021. Web. 3 Jan. 2023. <https://www.space.com/tachyons-facts-about-particles>

Moss, R. "That Artificial Womb Video Isn't Real, But Scientists Say It Could Be." Huffington Post. Buzzfeed, Inc., 13 Dec. 2022. Web. 3 Jan. 2023. <https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/is-ectolife-artificial-womb-real_uk_639858a2e4b0c28146469016>

Schottlender, M. "10 easy ways you can tell for yourself that the Earth is not flat." Popular Science. Recurrent, 26 Jan. 2016. Web. 3 Jan. 2023. <https://www.popsci.com/10-ways-you-can-prove-earth-is-round/>

Staff. "Practices of Science: Opinion, Hypothesis & Theory." Exploring Out Fluid Earth. University of Hawai'i, 30 May 2016. Web. 3 Jan. 2023. <https://manoa.hawaii.edu/exploringourfluidearth/node/651>

 

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